Our Three Selves
Michael Baker’s Our Three Selves: The Life of Radclyffe Hall is the third and the most satisfying full-length biography of Marguerite Radclyffe Hall. In order to appreciate fully what Baker has accomplished in Our Three Selves, it is necessary to understand the limitations of its predecessors. The first, The Life and Death of Radclyffe Hall (1961), was written in only four weeks in 1945 by Una Vincenzo Troubridge and was withheld from publication until 1961, when it was presumed that most of the principal persons were deceased. It is the distinctive work of an adoring lover and life companion: It is eulogistic and quaintly Victorian in its discretion. It displays, unfortunately, almost none of the wit, vivacity, and trenchant observation of Troubridge’s carefully kept daybooks. It has, however, despite its anachronistic reticence, a charm and an eye for ostensibly trivial detail, which Baker has been careful to notice and to cultivate in his use of this source for Our Three Selves.
The second biography, by Lovat Dickson, is entitled Radclyffe Hall at the Well of Loneliness: A Sapphic Chronicle (1975). Dickson was in the enviable position of having been left the copyrights to Radclyffe Hall’s books, with Troubridge’s stipulation that they would only be published in the most dignified fashion, this referring especially to The Well of Loneliness (1928), Radclyffe Hall’s book concerning “sexual inversion,” which had faced so many court proceedings because of its then-unusual subject matter. As literary executor, Dickson felt compelled to write a more complete and more carefully documented life of the much-misunderstood novelist. One of several areas in which Dickson’s book significantly increased public knowledge about Radclyffe Hall’s life was in its account of her late, and very painful, affair with Evgenia Souline. This affair received a scant three pages in Troubridge’s earlier biography, even though the episode lasted, off and on, for a full eight years before Radclyffe Hall’s death. Despite the additional information made available in Radclyffe Hall at the Well of Loneliness, Dickson’s book suffers from a disturbing penchant for impressionism and a rather florid style when dealing with matters of the heart and loins. The following description of Troubridge at a luncheon that she and Dickson shared in the 1950’s is typical: “I could see that she had been very beautiful. It was not difficult to imagine her suffused with that hot content that burns away the flesh; and to imagine this flame lit by someone other than a man.” This is clearly the style of the romance-novel genre. Throughout Dickson’s biography of Radclyffe Hall, one senses the storyteller, the stylist, and perhaps the unwary sensationalist getting the upper hand over the objective recorder of fact.
To be fair, Radclyffe Hall’s story is so dramatic and unusual that the temptation to romanticism must be nearly irresistible. Nevertheless, it is to Michael Baker’s credit that in Our Three Selves he manages, in the main, to steer a more scholarly, but no less interesting, course.
The sources from which a biography of Radclyffe Hall must be fashioned make objectivity a very difficult goal. To begin with, Radclyffe Hall never kept a diary, nor was she a prolific letter writer, with the exception of a relatively short period at the end of her life. To use Baker’s words, “Her story is thus predominantly one told by others.” The major sources for Our Three Selves are the diaries and letters of Mabel “Ladye” Batten, which chronicle Radclyffe Hall’s first significant love affair; the records of the proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, which engaged the energies of both Radclyffe Hall and Troubridge immediately following Batten’s death; the Radclyffe Hall Collection at the Humanities Research Centre at the University of Texas, which houses Radclyffe Hall’s letters to Evgenia Souline; and the extensive daybooks of Troubridge, without...
(The entire section is 1,654 words.)